Barack Obama photo

Interview with Savannah Guthrie of NBC at the Education Nation Summit

September 25, 2012

Guthrie: Mr. President, thank you for being with us for Education Nation. We really appreciate it.

The President: It's great to be here.

Guthrie: Well, they say all politics is local. But sometimes local politics turn national. So I want to ask you about the strike in Chicago. There was a leading reform advocate who said, "This shows is it a new day for Democrats. They are no longer kowtowing to the unions." Is that how you see it?

The President: You know, that's not how I see it. What I see is that, all across the country, people want results. And I'm a strong believer that the way you get results is to get everybody involved. So it starts at home. Parents have to parent and turn off the T.V. and the video and make sure your kids are doing their homework and communicate with your teachers.

It means teachers striving for excellence in the classroom. It means school boards making sure that teachers have the resources and the creativity to do their best, principals who are leaders. And I think what you saw in Chicago, for example was the fact that they had the shortest school day in-- in the country, just about. And-- or the shortest school year.

And it was very important, I think, for Mayor Emanuel to say, "Let's step up our game." And it was important for the teachers unions also to say, "Let's make sure we're not just blaming teachers for a lot of big problems out there. Let's make sure we've got the resources."

So I'm glad it was resolved. Ultimately, the most important thing, obviously, is performance and-- and making sure these kids are doing well. But I do think that from the perspective of Democrats we can't just sit on the status quo or say that money's the only issue. Reform is important, also. And that's been sort of the-- the benchmark we've used in my administration, is to say, "We're going to give more money to those schools that are serious about reform but we're not going to let people make excuses and suggest that it's just a money problem."

Guthrie: Mitt Romney said that, "President Obama has chosen his side in this fight," that you've sided with the unions. At another time last spring, he said, "He can't talk up reform while indulging in groups that block it."

The President: Well-- you know-- I think Governor Romney and-- and-- a number of folks try to politicize the issue-- and do a lot of teacher-bashing. When I meet teachers all across the country, they are so devoted, so dedicated to their kids. And what we've tried to do is actually break through this left/right, conservative/liberal gridlock.

And that's what my key reform's been all about, "Race To the Top." What we've said to school districts is, "You've gotta emphasize high accountability, high standards. Make sure that teachers know that we're going to be paying attention to the actual outcomes for kids. But we're also going to give more resources to schools who are doing the right thing: Training teachers providing them the professional development and support that they need." some of the things that we've done haven't been popular with teachers unions. You know, I'm a big proponent of charter schools, for example. I think that pay-for-performance makes sense in some situations.

Guthrie: One of the things that Mayor Emanuel was fighting for was tying teacher evaluations to student performance. The teachers fought it. That's something that's at the bedrock of your education policy.

The President: Well, the key is to work with teachers. When you look at what's happening in Denver, for example, School District, teachers have embraced the idea of merit pay for teachers who are really doing a great job. But what is still a challenge, and I think teachers have a legitimate gripe here, is making sure that the assessments are done properly, that it's not just based on standardized tests, which, oftentimes, forces schools to teach to the test.

And one of the reasons that we have sought reforms to No Child Left Behind. I think it had great intentions. I give President Bush credit for saying, "Let's raise standards and make sure that everybody's trying to meet them." But because so much of it was tied just to standardized testing, what you saw across the country was teaching to the test.

And I-- I can't tell you how many teachers I meet who say, "You know what? This makes school less interesting for kids. And as a consequence, I'm ending up really shrinking my curriculum, what I can do in-- in terms of creativity inside of the classroom." And that's not how you or I, for example, when we think about our best teachers, we don't think about studying a bunch of tests to see how we're going to score on a standardized test.

Guthrie: Some people think President Obama gets so much support from the teachers unions, he can't possibly have an honest conversation about what they're doing right or wrong. Can you really say that teachers unions aren't slowing the pace of reform?

The President: You know, I-- I-- I just really get frustrated when I hear teacher-bashing as evidence of reform. My sister is a former teacher. She now works at the university, working with teachers. And I can tell you that they work so hard. They're-- they're putting money out of their own pockets in the classroom every single day. They're not doing it for the pay.

And in some of the toughest school districts, they're not just teachers, they're counselors, they're disciplinarians, they're parents. Because these kids are coming into these schools with so many different problems. And you know, what is absolutely true is, if we've got a bad teacher, we should be able to train them to get better. And if they can't get better they should be able to get fired. I do think that-- you know, reform has to be a part of every agenda in the country-- school district in the country, because there's some schools that are just under-performing.

Guthrie: And I want to ask you about that. And I'm sure you could recite these statistics by heart. American students: 25th in math.

The President: Yeah.

Guthrie: 17th in science, 14th in reading. And yet, the U.S. spends just about as much as any other country per pupil.

The President: Uh-huh.

Guthrie: Why aren't we getting our money's worth? People are probably wondering, "What are we spending our money on, then?"

The President: Well you know, part of the problem we've got is we've got a very diverse country. Compared to some-- these smaller countries, where all the kids are coming to school pretty well prepared, they're not hungry, they're not poor-- in our country, we-- you know, we've got poor kids and we've-- some kids who have deep troubles at home. And-- and that affects performance.

But there's no doubt that we can step up our game. So what I've proposed, moving forward, building off of Race To the Top, is let's hire 100,000 new math and science teachers who are actually trained and math and science, as opposed to just being thrown into the classroom without the kind of preparation they need.

Let's continue to focus on early childhood education, makes a big difference-- particularly for kids who are low income. Part of our Race To the Top is let's figure out what are the drop out factories out there, the-- the-- couple of thousand schools where we know they're really under-performing. And let's transform those schools.

And-- and in all these situations, what we have to do is combine creativity and evidence-based approaches. So let's not use ideology, let's figure out what works, and figure out how we scale it up. And let's combine that with resources. And-- and this is big argument, and big difference, that I've got with Governor Romney in this election.

Because they talk a good game about reform. But when you actually look at their budgets-- they're talking about slashing our investment in education by 20-25%. We've already seen 300,000 teachers that have been fired across the country. And as a consequence, class sizes have gone up by 5%.

And, you know, when you talk to a teacher-- I was meeting with a couple of teachers in Las Vegas-- where they said, in the first week of school, they've got 42 kids in a class, some of 'em sitting on the floor, it takes a couple of weeks before they try to redistribute to maybe get it down to 35 or 36 or 38. That has an impact on kids learning. So reform is important. And resources are important. And you can't be for one but not be for the other.

Guthrie: Let me ask you about No Child Left Behind. This-- the amendment has granted waivers to states because Congress hasn't amended the law. Allows them to not have as rigorous of standards. Something caught my eye, absolutely, and I bet it caught yours, too. Because of those waivers, in some states, states are permitted to have different proficiency standards by race. So in other words, in the state of Maryland, African-American students are only expected to reach a certain level of proficiency, but white students are expect to-- to reach a higher level of proficiency.

They're expected to improve at a faster rate. But the bottom line is we have a situation in America, in 2012, where you have African-Americans expected not to reach the same level of proficiency as white in certain subjects. And I just wonder, on a gut level, does that bother you?

The President: Of course it bothers me. And-- and one of the good things about No Child Left Behind was to say all kids can learn. Black, white, Hispanic, doesn't matter. That everybody should be able to achieve at a certain level. But the problem that you had was, because it was under-resourced, and because some kids were coming in to school, a lot of minority kids were coming into school, already behind, the schools were not going to be meeting these standards, weren't even coming close to meeting these standards.

And so what we've said to schools is "You've gotta continue to keep those high standards. But we are going to measure growth. By age-- we're-- we're still going to keep track of what you're doing with each group. And you're not going to have an excuse to do really well with white kids, let's say, and the black and Hispanic kids aren't doing as well, but you average it out and you meet something. We're still going to disaggregate the information about black, white and Hispanic kids, to make sure that everybody's moving." But moving towards this growth model of how you measure the job that a school's doing gives every school an opportunity to continually improve without labeling them as failures, and then not giving them the resources that they need to actually step up.

Guthrie: Let's talk about college tuition. I know you've done a lot, you talk a lot, about what to do on the aid side. On the cost side, tuition is going up by leaps and bounds. It will make your jaw drop when you find out--

The President: Right.

Guthrie: --you know, what a little kid today is going to have to pay for college--

The President: Right.

Guthrie: --in 20 years. In your State of the Union you said, "I'm putting you on notice, colleges. If you don't reduce this tuition, you're going to see your funding drop." Is there any evidence that they've done anything to change, that they've listened to that threat?

The President: There are some schools that have. And you're right-- our first step was to make sure that we were providing the aid and grants that were needed so that the burden wasn't all falling on kids. And we expanded Pell Grants. We took $60 million out of the student loan program that was going to banks and middle men. We said, "Let's cut out the middle men. Let's use that to expand the assistance we're providing the kids."

So as a consequence-- the average actual out-of-pocket cost for kids has not gone up as fast as tuition has gone up. But that's not a sustainable model. So we're going to have to actually keep tuition down. Now, the biggest problem we've got with tuition-- especially at public universities, is state legislatures have been shifting priorities.

You know, they're spending money on-- you know, prisons, or other requirements, as opposed to the traditional support they've given to public education. And what we've said to state legislatures is, "You've gotta do your part and prioritize this. 'Cause how well your state does is going to depend on how good your-- how well your-- your workforce is educated."

But what we've also seen is school starting to do something about costs. You know, in some cases, it may involve thinking about tele-education, and are there ways that kids can get credit in some cases without actually being in a classroom. In some cases, it may involve, frankly, changing the facilities at these colleges and universities.

I mean when you've got country club-- you know-- level-- workout facilities and dining halls and all that stuff, that costs money. And-- and, you know-- I always tell kids when they're shopping for schools, I said, "You know, when I went to school, we didn't expect to have good food at the-- at the cafeteria. And we didn't expect to have a five-star health club at-- at a university."

So the-- we're working with schools that can find ways to-- to cut costs. But ultimately, states are going to have to step up when we're talking about public schools. This is also why community colleges are so important, because that's a good option for a lot of kids. And not everybody's going to need a four-year college degree. Everybody's going to need some form of higher education. And community colleges are an under-utilized resource, as we want to provide two million more slots for people who are attending community college to get trained for the jobs that are out there right now.

Guthrie: What would you advise a high school senior today who had a dream school that would leave him or her $100,000 in debt, or they could go to another school that would not? Should they lower their academic sights for financial reasons?

The President: Well, a couple things I would say. Obviously, each school is different. And some schools have a big ticket retail price, but when you factor in the aid that the schools give, it may not cost the kid as much. But if-- if they've got a chance of getting a great education without loading up debt-- you know, then-- you know, sometimes that's-- that might be the better option.

One of the things that, you know, we want to do is make sure the kids know what it is that it's going to cost them to go to college. So my-- as part of our Wall Street reform package, we set up something called The Consumer Finance Protection Bureau, which is designed to help consumers on a whole range of things, financial transactions, mortgages, et cetera, credit cards. And one of the things they've done is to create a mechanism to work with schools so that kids know before they owe.

They get a clear sheet before they sign up for that school, explaining, even if the college tells you, "Look, don't worry about cost we'll-- you'll be able to get the money for your college,"-- a lot of times kids don't know how much they're actually going to owe at the end of four years. And so we're saying, "You've gotta make that information above so the kids can be better consumers and as a consequence get the best bargain possible."

Guthrie: Back to education reform for a moment. Your supporters, even your detractors, say what you did with Race To the Top had a huge impact. It really broke decades of stagnation--

The President: Yeah.

Guthrie: --in terms of what educators were willing to do.

The President: Right.

Guthrie: You did that with, I think, what, less than 1%--

The President: Right.

Guthrie: --of the federal budget on education. So it raises the question, "Why not do more? Why not put more federal dollars toward these competitive grants and try to get more impact?"

The President: Well we're working with Congress to try to continue to fund this Race To the Top model. There've been members of Congress who've been resistant. Traditionally, education aid has been spread around by a formula. And, you know, if you're a Congressman or you're a Senator from a particular place-- you want to make sure you're getting your fair share, regardless of whether your school districts are reforming or not.

So sometimes there's resistance to taking money out of the formula side and putting it into these competitive grant programs. But we're going to keep on pushing, because what-- as-- as you point out, we ended up seeing 46 states, even the ones that didn't win the competition, initiate reforms because they were chasing those extra dollars.

And-- what we want-- to-- to say to school districts and states across the country is each state is different. That-- that, you know, we're-- we're not suggesting that all wisdom comes from Washington. But there are some basic baselines that everybody should be able to meet. There-- there are some basic standards.

And there's certain practices that we know work. We know that if you have well-trained teachers, who are given-- you know, treated like professionals and given room to be creative in a classroom and a good principal who's a leader, and you're keeping track of the progress the kids are making, that kids do better. And-- you know-- when we have good data that shows how you improve schools it shouldn't be just sitting in a drawer.

And-- and the-- idea between Race To the Top is we'll work with you. We're not going to tell you exactly what you want to do. But we're going to tell 'ya what we think works. And if you want extra dollars to implement that we're going to be there for you.

Guthrie: Before I let you go, you got in some hot water at home, I heard, a while back, when you let the world know that Malia had gotten a C on a science test. That got me thinking. Have you ever failed a test?

The President: Oh yes.

Guthrie: Really?

The President: Absolutely. You know, I-- I-- I was-- I would say I was a mediocre student until I got to college. I-- I goofed off way too much. Malia and Sasha are so far ahead of me basically, in all respects. They're-- they're just better people than I was at their age. And-- and-- and they're doing wonderfully. You know, I-- I couldn't be prouder of them.

I will say that at least at the school they're at-- they're getting a lot more homework than I-- I did when I was that age. I mean they-- they-- they seem to be working deep into the night. You know-- I-- I didn't study that ardent till-- the night before an exam.

Guthrie: I wondered if Malia, who's in high school now, you have a high schooler, if she's studying current events.

The President: She--

Guthrie: And studying this presidential election.

The President: You know, she is studying current events. And-- you know, she's pretty dispassionate about it. She's able to kinda separate out Dad, who's at home, from the debates that are going on out there.

Guthrie: Are you? Are you in there grading those essays?

The President: No. You know, I tell her, you know, I want her to think for herself. The-- the best education is one where kids learn how to learn, and they-- they learn how to think for themselves. And my entire goal as a parent is the same goal I've got as parent-- president, which is to-- to make sure that every child out here is equipped to-- to compete-- and to be good citizens in an environment that is changing so fast that you know, what you need to be able to do is to constantly take in new information, adapt it, analyze it, use it.

And-- and I think that we have all the-- all the ingredients we need to-- to succeed in this competitive environment. But it does mean that we've got more work to do at the local level. And hopefully the federal government can be helpful. We can't do it all. We only count for 10% of education funding. But I think that we can leverage the resources we have to make sure that schools are making a difference.

Guthrie: Mr. President, thank you for your time. I really appreciate it.

The President: I appreciate it. Thank you, I enjoyed it.

Barack Obama, Interview with Savannah Guthrie of NBC at the Education Nation Summit Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project

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